The New Smoking
June 06, 2021
Strolling down South Richmond street on a long summer’s evening, I approach two chefs standing silently in a doorway beside a Sushi restaurant. Each holds a cigarette in their left hand, catching the setting Sun’s warm orange light. Meanwhile in the shadow of the doorway, their right hands each grip a smartphone shining a cold sterile white glow a few inches from each of their faces. Neither look up or seem to notice as I pass.
Perhaps one or more of the many algorithmic feeds I subject myself to on a daily basis is fooling me of this, but I’m starting to believe a lot of the technology we engage with on a daily basis is doing us more harm than good.
I’ve found myself reflecting on friends, family, and my own technology use - and what I see is largely a negative influence on our collective lives. During the pandemic, I think a lot of us turned to technology to put in the time spent in lockdown and an unfortunate consequence of this has been the destructive habits we’ve developed with said technologies. In my own experience, I’ve been genuinely shocked and embarrassed when checking the screen time usage in the ‘Digital Wellbeing’ app on my smartphone. So much so that I’ve taken to deleting as many apps as possible, closing accounts, and even blocking some sites in order to cut down on their usage.
I’ve become vigilant of any technology with a business model that depends on the user spending daily time using it. This extends to video games, usually of the free-to-play type. I think video games have value and can be a genuine art form but when they never end, countless times can be poured into them which in turn drains the one true finite resource we have away from the rest of our life that could be spent doing more productive and rewarding things. I’m not saying we need to all be industrious entrepreneurs all of the time, but I find I’m a lot more fulfilled having watched a film than spending hours grinding away on a F2P game. When each round of League of Legends or Warzone finishes, I’m just left wondering what the hell the point in all that was and feeling very unsatisfied in a similar way one feels after eating fast food.
When you see the hooks that keep you coming back for more you begin to see them everywhere. Even on sites as innocuous as StackOverflow that reward you with ‘reputation points’ from fellow developers on questions you’ve answered in the past. This positive feedback strokes your ego and helps foster the positive connection you have with the site, which transforms you into a regular user. While one is unlikely to become addicted to or suffer from StackOverflow, these same hooks are used aggressively on many of the technology products we use today to draw us in as much as possible. Sometimes to detrimental effect. Each notification is an illusion of something potentially valuable to be discovered, reaching out to pull us into the well-orchestrated feedback loop. You click or tap and it’s a big nothing but somehow 20 minutes unconsciously pass you by. It’s all optimised to keep us as engaged as possible in order to drive growth, valuations, and profits but often at the expense of our own best interests.
What’s more destructive is the content pushed upon users to keep them engaged in some cases. Eating disorders and suicidal tendencies among the young are on the rise and have been directly related to social media usage and people are falling down rabbit holes of conspiracy theories that are undermining the largest democracies in the world. I’ve seen younger family members at the dinner table with eyes glazed over watching TickTok after TickTok as the time of their youth ticks and tocks away, and even older family members boasting of their achievements of reaching level two-thousand on Candy Crush.
I think this relatively new frontier of social media and tech usage is currently a bit of a Wild West and no one really knows what the fallout of it will all be when left to the hands of a largely unregulated market and a userbase not equipped to defend against or even aware of the potential dangers. Like smoking, I think in the future we’ll look back and scoff at the lack of understanding of the harm it’s having and will have on public health and society at large.
Below is a list of some books, articles, and documentaries I’ve come across that explore what I’ve ranted about in far better detail: